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Within the next few years, the Congress of Industrial Organizations Political Action Committee may become the most powerful vote-herding and lobbying organization in the country. It now has prestige, cohesive organization, political know-how, and formidable resources both in money and in manpower.

Is PAC really a new force? In the historical sense it is not. There were workingmen’s parties in this country before there were any trade unions of consequence. In 1828 fifteen states had labor parties, some of which wielded considerable influence. The early labor movement played a not insignificant part in the establishment of our public school systems. Samuel Gompers, however, would have nothing to do with the notion of a labor party, nor would he let the American Federation of Labor bind itself to either of the major parties. Yet he saw that labor could not afford to neglect politics, and the formula he gave the AFL in 1886 is the same one that PAC has adapted to its own purposes today. For sixty years the AFL has worked on the principle that it should stay out of partisan politics but that it should use the franchise of its members “to punish our enemies and reward our friends,” regardless of party.

In setting up PAC, the CIO is not departing from the Gompers writ in any fundamental way. Like the AFL, PAC takes the party system as it finds it and supports the regular candidates whose voting records are most acceptable to it. However, PAC will give the old formula a more intensive application. The AFL plays its politics rather casually. Its leaders merely advise the members that it is in the interests of the unions that certain candidates be elected and certain others defeated. This is done through the regular union channels. The AFL’s only full-time political employees are its Washington lobbyists. PAC, however, is a national machine, a whole new apparatus outside the regular union structure, set up not only to keep CIO members advised of their political interests but to shepherd them to the polls and registering places.

PAC may be looked upon as a promise, a menace, or just another special interest group, depending upon one’s attitude. In one sense, though, it can perform a real service for all sides. PAC is a national machine, and, although it will use local issues where that can be done, its principal concern is with national policy.

This has never been true of our regular party machines. Neither major party is really a national organization; both are loose federations of state parties, representatives of which meet once in four years to name a presidential candidate. However, the national leaders of each party have less influence over federal officeholders than the state and county leaders. If a state or county boss does not like the way a congressman behaves, he can deprive him of the nomination. If a national boss is displeased, he can only recommend such action to local bosses, who are free to accept the recommendation or not as they wish.

State and county bosses, of course, are absorbed in local affairs. How a man votes on Dumbarton Oaks is of far less consequence than how well he pushes for funds to widen Zenith River. A congressman, in their minds, goes to Washington to represent the interests of his district. Where he gets his ideas on foreign or national policy is, as often as not, his own affair.

In the 1944 congressional elections, PAC introduced national and foreign issues into local campaigns on a larger scale than anyone has succeeded in doing in the past. Where candidates had formerly stood on their record for local improvement and faithful service to the special interests of their constituents, PAC, wherever it functioned, confronted them with their full records and forced them to defend themselves. It does not matter whether PAC’s criticisms were always just or what its motives were in any particular case. If it can bring the world into the politics of the Umpteenth Congressional District, the politics of the Umpteenth Congressional District will be a lot the better for it, and so may the world.

From “Labor’s Political Machine,” which appeared in the June 1945 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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September 1962

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